Italia.

Italia

(my second post on tickytocka, the soccer blog of Noel Shaw, Eric Gamalinda, and Ubaldo Stecconi).

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Roberto Baggio, the divine ponytail obscured.

Skeff is one of my best friends and the most mild-mannered of men. But we fight over Italia. He thinks they play dirty and wish they’d stop falling down. I tell him a team needs to learn to play Italia and stop touching them in the penalty box. People tell me I have no judgment when it comes to Italia. I tell them they don’t know soccer. Or calcio, as the Italians call it.

It’s not really about judgment. Maybe it’s just me. As if watching soccer develops a heart’s muscle memory.

Even at the height of my admiration for France (with Zidane in 1998) and Spain (with its entire team since 2008)—whenever they played Italy, no matter who was on Italy, I wished the other team would lose. My memory of Italia began in the late 80s with Roberto Baggio, Il Divin’ Codino, The Divine Ponytail, as he was called, the gorgeous Buddhist who was a classic Italian striker, quicksilver and preternaturally lovely in his game, and prematurely injured by his fellow Italians in Serie A (so I believed because he stopped playing while the memory of him was so vivid); Paolo Maldini with his upsetting, otherworldly eyes and this ineffable pose—his left arm was always lofted before him, like a ballerina’s in first position, as he dribbled the ball, a deceptively delicate look for one of the fiercest and most effective defenders in a team that defined the concept of defense—and last but not least Franco Baresi, Italy’s sweeper, who like Maldini played at only one club throughout his career, Serie A’s AC Milan.

Even to remember their names, to speak the name Baresi, makes me happy. Arne loved Franco Baresi. In Manila, where we taught in the nineties, he would explain to Jay, a baseball fan, why Americans should follow soccer. And what’s so great about him, Jay would tease, pointing at Baresi, who did look like some frump, a disheveled uncle, with his receding hairline and surprisingly slight figure (I remember always being surprised when play would begin to find out once again that Baresi was several inches smaller than the extra-terrestrial, improbable Maldini, who in my mind was Baresi’s mere lieutenant). Baresi possessed neither Maldini’s space-alien eyes nor Baggio’s obvious beauty to make one think twice about him in a crowd.

But by simply walking onto the pitch, Arne said, Baresi changes the game. Jay would laugh—you mean just by putting on his shirt, walking up in his cleats? Yup, Arne would say, the mere appearance of Baresi changes the game. Soccer is not a sport, I explained to Jay—it’s the Iliad, and Baresi is Achilles—the sight of his armor alone makes twenty men die. Arne laughed when we made fun of his oracular soccer speeches, spoken with the conviction of an Italian-American who had grown up playing an outcast sport—but about Baresi, Arne was never joking.

Baresi was a sweeper, the libero, the fifth defender in Italy’s catenaccio—that door-bolt style of Italian play that locked up the enemy’s offense and infuriated me. Why can’t Italy just allow Roberto Baggio to play, I’d whine. Arrigo Sacchi did not like Baggio and kept benching him. It was the libero’s free, roaming moves from the back that orchestrated the game. Arne loved two liberos: before Baresi there was Beckenbauer. But Beckenbauer was German, and Arne’s father was from Le Marche. Italia was Arne’s team—and Baresi was Italia.

Defense, for Arne, had a kind of sacral quality, a commitment to attentiveness, to self-rigor and observation, to watching your man. Arne also loved goals, especially the goals he made. The first thing he would tell me when he came home from a game was whether or not he had scored. But a team with sloppy defense drove him crazy. Kovach, his team’s captain in Manila, was a happy-go-lucky Bob-Marley-loving jerk, a striker who was always high on marijuana and himself, who believed his destiny was to become a kicker for the Broncos, and he drove Arne wild. No matter what they agreed about man-marking in advance, Kovach the captain just never bothered and expected no one in the team to care. Arne cared a lot. Fuming over Kovach made him lose five pounds every game he played in Manila, and he was a wraith by the time he was done.

We used to watch AC Milan at 3 a.m. in Manila, a team Arne, who was a Fiorentina fan as a kid, followed because of Baresi. It was from watching AC Milan in the 90s at 3 a.m. that I appreciated the deadly tranquility that marked a great team, a kind of luxe, calme et volupté that was equal parts torpor, patience, self-belief, and silken skill. Talent, of course, was the Italians’ luxury. It was like waiting for cheetahs to pounce. When I watched Italia in 2006, I declared by the end of the first round the team had that calm that marked champions. Everyone told me I was partial, even the Italians.

Calcio was again under a cloud, this time a referee scandal that would demote Juventus to Serie B (AC Milan, also a cheater, got by with a slap on the wrist and stayed up, just barely). But despite all that, tranquillo was the Italian team in 2006—intense, patient, linked to each other by skill and scandal. That was the year I fought with Skeff about Italia. Everyone remembers how that madman Materazzi apparently kept giving the demonic and typical yo-mama speech to Zidane in the final game, making Zidane go bonkers over slurs against, who knows, his sister, his mother, his grandmother, and probably even his yaya. I cried with the world, watching Zidane walk toward the tunnel past the trophy of the FIFA World Cup, which oddly looks like a monorchid, golden scrotum, by the way, missing one other, shiny, obscene ball.

Noel, Eric, and I were trying to recall Materazzi’s name the other day, justly misremembering him as the man who had head-butted Zidane. And because that was the tournament when the world lost Zidane, no one remembers the semi-final game Italy played against Germany—a suspenseful 120-minute bout of sheer conviction about one’s fate. The semi-finals are often (to me) the best games of the tournament. And they are usually better when they involve the defeat of Germany. Italy broke Germany down. Germany had looked invincible—with the usual athleticism, power, and heart of a very good German team—and this time Germany was actually likable (they even had Poles). But that year, if there was one team to beat Germany, Italy would. In 2006 Italy were tranquilli—they gave me that surreal sensation, luxe, calme et volupté—under the gun of collective scandal and thrill, and they beat the Germans 2-0 in extra time. That is why they were champions.

We have no such Italia this year, but I still wanted them to win. To me, the mere appearance of the team changes the game. I guess disappearance matters, too. At least, we got the drama of a vampire bite. Which still gives us no chance for resurrection.

As Arne would say, until the day he died, Forza Azzurri.

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